Untimely Death for BCAP?

House subcommittee moves to eliminate funding for the Biomass Crop Assistance Program
By Erin Voegele | June 17, 2011

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program, commonly known as BCAP, was originally authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill. Although the program experienced a rocky start, those who advocate for the biorefining industry agree that the program is integral to overcoming the chicken-and-egg scenario associated with biomass production for second-generation biofuel and biochemical refineries.
Michael McAdams, president of the Advanced Biofuels Association, stresses that the if we want to bring new energy crops into commercial production, it is important that programs like BCAP are funded by Congress. Although initial implementation of the program did not go as smoothly as most hoped, it’s certainly possible to improve the program. “I’d rather see us fix the problems than jettison the whole program,” McAdams says. “Quite frankly, I think this is part of the overall trend line to try to reduce government spending, and we need to be very thoughtful and surgical about it. If there were concerns about the way the existing program was being run, let’s address those concerns. The fundamental premise of the program is very important, and it’s very sound.”

McAdams stresses he is hopeful that lawmakers will find a way to restructure the program so that it delivers its original intent. “I don’t think anybody argues that we want our government to economically and efficiently administer programs that … are in the best interests of our nation,” he says. “If there are fundamental issues that are part of this past program, let’s revisit those issues and figure out how to fix them.”

According to Matt Carr, policy director for the Industrial & Environmental Section of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the biomass industry has made great strides in developing purpose-grown energy crops. “The challenge is to provide farmers with the structure that will give them confidence to adopt these new and tested feedstocks, and that’s what [BCAP] does,” he says.

Most of the new bioenergy feedstocks that are being developed are perennial crops, Carr says. “They take a number of years to establish, and during that time a farmer will not have the benefit of revenue from sale of the biomass,” he adds. “What the BCAP program does is help the farmers with payments for crop establishment, to help prepare the fields for planting and then also to cover the period before the first sale of biomass.”

Andy Olsen, senior policy advocate at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, notes that a primary problem with the BCAP program revolves around how its two parts were implemented. Rather than implementing the portion of the program that helps farmers establish biomass crops first, Olsen says that the USDA Forest Service first moved to implement the portion of the program that provides matching payments to biomass producers. “It’s very important to get the establishment program going,” he says. “That’s the priority. By just funding the existing buyers of the biomass, all they really did was to make a large subsidy to those industries,” which led to complaints from industry sectors that were negatively impacted.

That said, Olsen says it’s important to remember this is the first version of the BCAP program and that the knowledge and experiences that have been gained should be used to improve upon the program in the next Farm Bill. In order for that to happen, those in the biomass and biorefining industries need to speak up and stress to their congressional representatives how important the program is. McAdams agrees. “I think it’s incumbent upon the industry to redouble our efforts and make the case on how important this program is to the future of cellulosic and advance biofuels,” he says. —Erin Voegele